By Duncan Flynn - Senior Account Director
As we start a critical year of elections in London, the Conservative Party faces a serious challenge to both hold onto boroughs which have been historically considered safe and to remain relevant in other boroughs which until recently were controlled by the Party.
For many London Conservatives, Boris Johnson’s Mayoral victories of 2008 and 2012 now feel like a distant memory. In the past four years Labour has made major advances in the Capital at council elections (2014), winning the Mayoralty and an increased number of GLA seats (2016) and gaining Parliamentary seats in London at the 2015 and 2017 General Elections. The Conservative performance in the latter General Election, was an especially chastening experience for candidates and Party activists in London with target seats such as Brentford & Isleworth, Ealing Central, Enfield North, Hampstead & Kilburn, Harrow West & Westminster North lost to Labour by five digit majorities and supposedly safe seats such as Kensington falling to Jeremy Corbyn’s Party. Moreover, the Liberal Democrats were able to chip away at recent Conservative dominance in South West London by regaining Kingston & Surbiton and Twickenham which were both lost in their electoral nadir of 2015.
Since the 2017 General Election, the situation has arguably only worsened for the Conservatives with the horrors of the Grenfell Tower disaster causing major difficulties for the Conservative administration in Kensington & Chelsea and the ongoing travails of Theresa May’s Government around the Brexit negotiations not playing well to a predominantly Remain-voting electorate in Inner London Conservative boroughs such as Westminster and Wandsworth. The timing of the recent sacking of Brexit rebel and Wimbledon MP Stephen Hammond from his position as Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party for London was also less than ideal coming only five months before next year’s elections.
Despite all of this apparent gloom, there are some more positive signs for London Conservatives to cling to. There is some evidence that Corbyn’s Labour Party might not yet have entirely sealed the deal with affluent professional voters in Conservative-held Inner London boroughs as evidenced by the strong Conservative showing in the recent Thamesfield by-election in Wandsworth. Furthermore, while Brexit is undoubtedly less popular in Inner London, the strong Leave vote in some Outer London boroughs may assist the Party in making up ground especially in Havering (where the Conservatives are confident of winning seats from Residents Association councillors) and Sutton (where the Liberal Democrat hegemony may be at risk). The latter borough is home to the new Conservative Party Vice Chairman for London, Paul Scully MP, who has been charged with overseeing the 2018 campaign. Scully has an impressive recent electoral record of turning a Liberal Democrat Parliamentary seat into a Conservative seat with a majority of over 12,000 in two years and the Party will be hoping this campaigning experience can be effectively deployed across the Capital.
Realistically, the London Conservatives will be seeking to hold onto as many of the 9 London boroughs they presently control as possible, while seeking to avoid large scale losses in boroughs such as Croydon, Enfield and Hammersmith & Fulham in order to remain electorally relevant and ready to take office once the national political climate changes in the Party’s favour. They start the election from a historically low base of 612 councillors elected in 2014 and most of the battleground activity in 2018 will be played out in areas which have traditionally voted for Conservative representatives. We can expect the Party to seek to focus on predominantly local, borough-wide issues in those campaigns where the Party already has control in order to talk up the work of current Conservative administrations and deflect from any unhelpful national political headlines.
This is largely a defensive campaign for the London Conservatives and should they manage to return a similar number of councillors to 2014 then it will be viewed as a qualified success given the difficult circumstances. Such a result may also encourage some of those considering a challenge to Sadiq Khan in 2020 that a tilt at the Mayoralty is not necessarily the completely lost cause that many commentators are currently assuming it to be. However, should the more negative predictions come to pass and Conservative flagship boroughs fall to Corbyn’s comrades, then we can expect some serious questions to be asked about the Party’s electoral viability inside the M25.